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Some time back I was given the interesting job of restoring tapes and 7-inch singles on a unique project for the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs. I enlisted the aid of Jamie Howarth and his Plangent Processes (see Tape Op #94) in saving these tapes from the early '70s. I was also able to transfer the vinyl as well as pull off some nice cleanup with iZotope's RX2 Advanced software. But all through the process, I was most fascinated by the artist, Linda Gerard, and what the story was behind her career and the studio sessions that these songs came from. Linda now works at Ace Hotel in Palm Springs as a hostess in the fine King's Highway restaurant where she's the center of a weekly "Sissy Bingo" night. She not only calls the numbers, she entertains the room with songs, stories and a ribald sense of humor. We got to chat with Linda after Sissy Bingo one Monday night, and it was a treat. Check out her album Linda Gerard: Fabulous Selections.
This is a busy night, right?
It's like that every Monday. I don't know where they come from! It's all of a sudden. At 6:30 there's nobody here, and by 7:00, you can't get in.
That's a good thing, because Monday nights are hard for restaurants.
I worked here last night. We did 22 dinners I think, and I was here from 5 to 9. It was terrible. We probably did 80 tonight, and drinks. I was so out of breath. When I start off, I run around. But then I forget I have to sing, and you can't sing when you're out of breath.
So how does Madonna do it? Oh, wait, it's all lip-synced. Never mind![laughter]
I was in a show here in town called the Follies many years ago, and everybody except me was all pre-recorded. I told the guy that I didn't want to pre-record. I want to sing live. He said, "Well, no... you're going to be dancing." And I said, "I don't care. I don't want to mouth it, because it's so phony."
People can tell. They just look at you and know right away. You're obviously very entertaining.
I'm charismatic, that's the word. You know what they said to me last week? "You are so sick!" I thought, "Oh my god, they must know that I just got over bronchitis." Apparently sick means you're really good. I didn't know that. [laughter]
It always changes.
Or when they say, "You're the bomb." In my day, if you bombed, you were dreadful.
You're an entertainer and a performer, but when was the first time that you ever stepped into a recording studio?
When I was in college I was in a show in New York City. I went to Finch, and we were doing a show called Finch Follies, or whatever it was called in those days. I sang "Birth of the Blues" and "Mama Done Told Me." We had to record it because they knew they were going to sell them. I wish I could have that album.
That's out there somewhere?
It was 1956, Finch College in New York.
A sort of college recital type album?
Yeah. Because it was New York, we had a little theatre that we did the show in, and they sold the album after the show. That was the first time that I went into a real recording studio. It was a trio with piano, bass, and drums. Then the next time I did it was probably in the early '60s. I was working with a pianist named Peter Daniels. He ended up marrying Lainie Kazan, who was also Barbra's [Streisand] accompanist at the Bon Soir. He was my vocal coach and pianist. He wanted me to record a couple of songs that he had written, so I did that. That was just with him. Then, with "See the Cheetah," I was probably...I was very young.
Were you about 20 or 21?
Yeah, I was very young. I was with William Morris, a very big agency in New York. They set me up with a guy named Sy Shaffer who was an orchestra leader. I went into his studio and told him I was a singer. He said that they would give me a couple of songs to make demos, because the writers wanted to present these songs to famous singers who would record them.
I said, "Okay, yeah." So I went in the studio. Now, in those days, it wasn't that the orchestra came and played first and then you sang over it. Everybody did it together.
You were on the spot.
He was a bastard. He wanted it right the first time. I think they had given me the music a few days before; but I sight-read, so it was no problem.
I was going to ask you if you sight-read on jobs like that.
Yes. I learned at the American Theatre Wing; they had a course on that. That was in 1957. Anyway, there was a big orchestra. He was in a booth leading me on when to come in, and when not to, because there was a very long introduction...
Like 16 bars, or something like that.
It's a very long introduction. So anyway, I sang, and I was not happy with it. It ["See The Cheetah"] wasn't in my key! I'm an alto, and he had me sing it very high. He didn't want it so much for how I sounded as much as he wanted for someone else to hear it and sing it.
He planned to present it to someone who was going to sing it as a soprano.
Right. So I did it. There was also another one, which I don't think I ever found, called "There Are No Words." It's another good one. I think it was written by the same guy who wrote "See the Cheetah." But I don't know what ever happened to that one. Then he had me sing, "My Funny Valentine." I can't remember what the fourth cover was.
Why would he have you sing "My Funny Valentine" if he didn't write it?
I don't know why he had me do that one. Maybe he liked me after all that! Who knows? But he was a much older man, and I was a kid. What was interesting was, as I got older and recorded for Spiral Records, they would record the music first. Then I would go to the studio and put on the headphones to sing over it.
Right, it's a whole different process.
I liked it much better when I sang live. There's something about having the orchestra right there. It's like being on Broadway.
Your main album was A Woman Starting Out All Over Again.
Those songs were written by a friend of mine named Richard DeMone. We had worked together in New York. I'd bought a bar [The Pied Piper] in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and I invited him to come and play there. I sang a bunch of his songs at the bar, and we decided to go into a recording studio in Boston and record his work.
I remember hearing that you had a female engineer on the session. That was pretty rare then.
Karen Kane. They were all in the musical school at Boston U, or one of those places, so it was like their first time too.
Well, it sounds damn good!
Richard not only played piano, but also a couple of other instruments as well. He did all the orchestration. He's very talented. He lives in Florida now and has retired.
Those are all songs that he'd written?
He wrote them for me. Not because of this; but when he knew me, I was straight. When we worked in New York, I was a straight woman. He knew my kids and my husband and all that. Then when I went to Provincetown and bought my bar, my life changed. I met a woman and fell in love with her. That song relates to that change, and it works perfectly. Even the one that goes, "Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when I wake up I jump." It's called "I Still Love You." That was when we broke up. So each one of them had a reason. He wrote each song for a reason.
That's really sweet. Did you do other albums after that?
I did an album for Gladys Shelley. I have a couple of projects like that. There was "Clown Town," "Guess Who I Saw Today," "How Did He Look," "New York City, I Love You"...
Oh, we have that from the single too.
There were about eight songs that she wrote, and she made an album for Spiral Records. Then she had another label that she wanted me to sing on. She was very eccentric; an older Jewish lady, with like eight Chihuahuas. She lived in a penthouse, and her husband owned Coney Island.
The amusement park?
The amusement park. She was very, very wealthy. She had all these jewels, her own recording studio, and her own this and that. But she was a lovely lady. She loved me, and she loved my voice. So that was Gladys. Did you get the one of me in Funny Girl where I sing, "I'm The Greatest Star?"
I don't think I have a copy of that one.
That's not only a song. There's also a video of me.
No, I haven't seen that.
I've moved from place to place, and I'd figure, "Who wants this?" I'd give stuff away, or throw it away. Like I've thrown away most of my scrapbooks, because who wants to look at it? Who's going to want to look at my old scrapbooks? I didn't keep all that stuff. But I've had a wonderful career. Now it's like I'm starting all over again, but on my terms. It's not like being with William Morris where they say, "You've got to be in Wisconsin tomorrow." I don't have to do that anymore.
JZ: Did you go on Broadway for Barbra Streisand? That's amazing.
Yeah. The first time I went on was Labor Day weekend of 1965. She called me at my apartment in New York. She said she was going to Philadelphia to see Elliott Gould, her husband then, open in a show called Drat! The Cat!. She said, "I'm going to miss the Saturday matinee and the Saturday night show. You're on. You can use my dressing room." Nobody was ever allowed in her dressing room, but I was allowed to use it. She loved me! I wasn't a threat. I wasn't about to take her job from her, that's for sure.
You had been her understudy for the show?
Well, it's called a standby. The difference is that an understudy is in the show with another chorus role, but a standby only goes on for the star. I'd sit backstage all night long, in case Barbra didn't show up or got sick during the show. I had to wait until the end of the second act before I could even go home. Lainie Kazan was an understudy; she was fired because when she went on she alerted all of the media. Barbra was pissed. Barbra had her fired, and then there was this whole thing of hiring someone else. They hired me and, in small print, in my contract it said that I must not alert the media until at least two weeks after I'd performed the understudy role. There were [reviewers] Clive Barnes and Earl Wilson, big names, in those days. They would write, "Two weeks ago, Linda Gerard performed for Barbra and did a fine job." No big deal. That way she didn't care if I went on for her, because she knew that nobody would know for a couple of weeks.
JZ: That's funny! It's right out of All About Eve.
I got along with Barbra. We were both in our twenties. I was three years older, so I was like 27 and she was 24. We were babies. My kids were about three-years old. But what was interesting when I owned my bar in L.A. [The Rose Tattoo] in the '80s, I hired her half-sister, whose name is Roslyn Kind, and Barbra came to one of the shows. I went up to her and said, "You may not remember me, but..." And she said, "Of course I know who you are! You're Linda Gerard. How are the twins?"
She was [and is] a superstar. She'd won an Academy Award and [several] Grammys.
Yeah, think of where all that went for her.
I started to become very famous in New York in the late sixties and early seventies. I hated it. I hated it not so much for all the pressure that's put on you, but for the fact that you can't go anywhere. You can't do anything. There are constantly people going, "There she is!" In New York in those days, for some reason, everybody knew everybody. I was doing a lot of TV. I just said, "I don't want to do this." Then I would get letters. People would write to me and say, "We know that you went on for Barbra, We're fans of Barbra and we're going to come get you." I'm like, "What the fuck is that all about?"
Yeah; wackos. I went, "I've got to get out of here. This is not for me." I was frightened. Then I started working at the bars in New York. I would have to have somebody walk me to a cab, because I was afraid to go out by myself. I just said, "No."
Imagine how it is for some people. They're trapped.
They can't go anywhere. What's a life like that? When I moved to Massachusetts, it was a very small town and nobody gave a shit that I was on Broadway. They could have cared less. I felt at home, and I didn't have to worry about anything. I liked that a lot better.
You could raise your girls.
It's very demanding. William Morris would call me all the time. I remember when they called me to go to Paducah, Kentucky, with Gene Rayburn. I had to go with Gene to Paducah to do a telethon, like three days from then. I'm like, "Are you kidding?" He says, "Nope, we booked you." And you have to do it. If they're your agent, you do what they tell you to do.
JZ: I might have misheard, but the album that we have now, did a man write those songs, or did you write those songs?
Oh, I didn't write any of those songs. I don't know how to write a song.
JZ: You confided in him about your life and he re-translated the experience?
Well, we had worked together in New York many years ago. He wrote songs. He would say, "Okay, I've just written you another song." Then when I brought him into Provincetown, which was a very gay town (and he was a gay man), he said, "Oh, I've got to write a song about that. I'm going to write a song about your kids."
JZ: That's amazing, because it's your voice and your life. It gives it that personal touch. I didn't know that it was written by a man, with your voice, but it's so you!
On some of the ones, like "Bright and Shining Day," he's one of the voices that sings harmony with me.
Oh, cool. I think that's the sign of a great writer; someone who can look at a scenario, take inspiration, focus on an experience, and come out with great material.
From what I understand now, he's retired. He's my age, in his seventies. He works with church choirs now. That's his whole thing.